(Hamilton-inspired) Time for Synthesis

I recently became obsessed by the music from the Broadway musical Hamilton (I know, I’m not alone).

I haven’t seen the show yet, but I’m going to next month so I’ve been reading up on it – so far, mostly articles and reviews, not the huge Ron Chernow Hamilton biography, which is next on my list.

In the New Yorker profile of Lin-Manuel Miranda, the genius songwriter/actor/rapper who wrote the script and music for Hamilton, I came across this excerpt about his process:

Miranda writes many of his lyrics while in motion: walking around Fort Tryon Park, which is near his apartment, or riding the subway downtown from 181st Street…

‘I will write eight or sixteen bars of music I think is exciting, or interesting, or sounds like the pulse of the character I want to be speaking, and then I will go put on my headphones and walk my dog and talk to myself,’ he says.

Sometimes when he is working on a riff he sings into the voice-memo function on one device while listening to the loop on another. The refrain of Aaron Burr’s signature song, ‘Wait for It,’ came to him fully formed one evening on the subway. “I was going to a friend’s birthday party in Dumbo,’ he says. ‘I sang the melody into the iPhone, then I went to the guy’s party for fifteen minutes, and wrote the rest of the song on the train back home.’”

I get a fair number of questions about how to “be innovative,” and mostly I don’t know how to answer them. But I do think it’s pretty clear that, most of the time, creativity and new ideas don’t spring forth when we sit at our desk, clicking between Outlook and Word (never mind Facebook).

In my experience, my own unanswered questions from an intense period of work will churn in the background until a moment of insight comes unexpectedly, even inconveniently, often when I’m on a run or doing something else that’s seemingly not work-related.

While I usually feel foolish stopping a run to tap out something on my iPhone, wondering if I’m missing the point entirely of going for the run, I do increasingly try to capture the thoughts that spring up in these moments by sending myself a quick email as I wipe the sweat out of my eyes, or recording a breathless voice memo if it’s a longer or more complex thought.

One of the risks of day after day of tasks, meetings, to do lists and email is that we need extra space to go from grappling with big, challenging questions to answering them. Equally important is to remember to put down our phones, in the elevator or when walking down the street, to give our brains some down time to process our own thoughts.

We’re all different, but I think it’s important to reflect on when our insights come and to make more space in our weeks for these insights to bubble up.

For me, I typically have insights in one of four types of moments: conversation with a colleague, on runs (but not other kinds of exercise), when I sit down to blog, and when I set aside larger blocks of time to think through a problem (including reading relevant articles on a given topic). Since I have stretches when I fail to set aside those larger blocks of time, I’m working to make sure I always have space for the other three, and that I experiment with using other “found” moments of time (like, say, on the subway) to generate spontaneous moments of synthesis and reflection.

Probably the easiest shift to make is to recognize that little gaps of time – a short walk on the way to work or to lunch, an elevator ride, when we walk the dog or even prepare dinner – aren’t wasted time to be filled with yet another distraction. These are precious moments to let our unconscious mind come up with the answers that our conscious mind can’t quite produce.

New isn’t all new

It’s so easy to be held back by “it’s not new enough.”

As in:

I can’t write this blog post (or this book), someone else has already said this.

I can’t claim that this idea is important, because someone else was doing something that looked a little bit like this before I was.

I can’t share my excitement about how we are tackling this problem, because parts of our approach have been tried before.

“New” doesn’t mean brand new, completely new, all new. That’s not how it works. What makes something new isn’t a set of component parts that has never been seen before. It’s the way you put those parts together in new ways, or the way you apply those parts in new domains.

By way of example, Gutenberg’s printing press, “invented” in 1439, was, technically, nothing new. Movable type had existed in China since 1051. Ink and paper-making had existed for thousands of years. Paper mills became common in Europe in the 1300s as did woodcut printing presses.

But no one had put them together in just the way Gutenberg did, and when he assembled and spread his unique combination of existing parts, he revolutionized the spread of ideas in the Western world and began the democratization of information that is still happening today.

(also: how Star Wars is practically a paint-by-numbers manifestation of the 19 steps of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey, on purpose)

Don’t let your fear of “this isn’t all new” keep you from creating new things or from sharing what you feel is important about the new work that you’re doing. And don’t let the voices – both inside and outside your head – of “this has been done before” keep you from doing that next important thing or from sharing what is groundbreaking about the work you are doing.

“New” – here, now, for this thing, in this way – is new enough.

And “new,” ultimately, is about how we understand and frame a problem, and how we think about the ways we can go about solving it. If your “new” changes that, then it’s changed everything.

 

(for more along these lines, I highly recommend Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson)

Things we’ve done before

The things we’ve done before get less scrutiny. We did them last year (or last quarter, or last month) so when the time comes to do them again, we turn the crank and start.

New things, on the other hand, get all the tough questions.  Why?

Did we know more last year about what needed to happen today than we know today? Probably not.

Rather, the things we’ve done before, collectively, add up to our sense of who we are. Organizationally, we are the sum the things we do – our programs, our initiatives, our product lines – and cutting one of those away creates a sense of loss.

Worse, that loss may arrive special delivery from the outside.  Those close to you – customers, donors, friends – are quick to say, “I miss that thing we used to do.”  But they’ll never bang on your door with nostalgia for the thing you’ve never done.

If you’re in the “creating new things” business, your job is to understand how much the people around you resist white space and how much loss will be experienced by letting go of something familiar. Then your job is to work through these tough, personal conversations, not to pretend they don’t have to happen.

Remember, old versus new isn’t a fair fight based on the merits what makes the most sense today.

5 tough questions

Today is the second annual NextGen:Charity conference.  To commemorate the conference, Ari Teman, co-founder of the conference along with Jonah Halper, asked me to respond to five questions about innovation in the developing world, leadership, faith, blogging, and failure.  Here’s the interview (the link to yesterday’s Huffington Post article is here).

1. There’s a lot of talk about sharing our innovations with the 3rd world — let’s flip that around. What are some of the lessons the “developed world” can learn from the innovators you support (who have to operate on pennies a day)?

Extreme frugality, a relentless focus on customers, the ability to navigate complexity and take nothing for granted. In 2003, Acumen Fund connected with the visionary entrepreneur Amitabha Sadangi who realized that he could reverse-engineer drip irrigation systems originally developed in Israel and make them infinitely scalable and radically affordable to poor customers in India. Amitabha knew that poor farmers would need to see an extreme value proposition – the ability to test the system on 1/8th acre plots and to see payback in less than a year – and that even so the road would be long and hard to change farming practices. Eight years later, Global Easy Water Products has served more than 300,000 farmers, and Amitabha has a lot to teach entrepreneurs globally about creating the minimal viable product to meet the needs of customers for whom value per dollar is paramount and the willingness to take risk is limited. He’s also about the most persistent man you’ll ever meet.

2. The Acumen Fund has a prestigious Fellowship Program where you develop young talent and you also work with some amazing visionaries — what do you see as the key traits of a successful leader?

We expect the Acumen Fund Fellows to possess a unique combination of traits – operational excellence, financial acumen, and what we call moral imagination, the ability to see yourself in another, to walk a mile in her shoes. Each year we select 10 Fellows from a global pool of 700 applicants from 60 countries, and the Fellows are an amazing group from all walks of life. We’ve had people like Jocelyn Wyatt, who has created IDEO.org to bring design thinking and user-centered design to address problems of poverty; Jawad Aslam, who is now pioneering low-income housing for the poor in Pakistan through his company, AMC; or Suraj Sudhakar who, in addition to his day job, has thrown 40 TEDx’s across the slums of Nairobi. In addition to the incredible combination of skills these Fellows bring to the table, what differentiates them is a deep and abiding commitment to seeing the poor not as passive recipients of charity but individuals with hopes, aspiration, and dignity.


3. On your blog you frequently muse on various faiths’ approaches to giving. How does faith inform your leadership and charity work?

When I started blogging I thought I was going to write about philanthropy and social enterprise, but as I continued my exploration I kept on getting to more fundamental questions of service and giving. While I’m a huge believer in the need for innovation to solve some of the world’s toughest problems, there’s also a deep wisdom that all of the faiths have to offer – we just need to be willing to open up our ears and hearts to what they have to teach. Sometimes I worry that we might get too smart in how we approach solving problems and lose our rooting in this centuries-old wisdom. The notion that giving is part of the circle of life is central to all religions and cultures – it connects us to one another, strengthens community, and is an acknowledgment that if we are in a position to give, then we have ourselves been given a great gift.


4. You mentioned you blogged publicly about your Generosity Experiment to encourage yourself to follow-through. How else do you keep yourself motivated?

It’s incredibly easy to stay motivated when you feel like you’re making a difference – it’s when you’re trying to make a difference and failing that your energy drains away. I think we all crave a better world and the moment you get a taste of helping create that, you can never let it go. I sometimes joke that I never knew what I was getting in to when I started blogging, and it’s just as well – it helps to be a little naïve because if you’re not you’ll never jump in. Whether through the crazy, unexpected success of Generosity Day 2011 or when I watch one of the Acumen Fund investees reach its millionth customer served with a product that really improves people’s lives, I know I’m doing the right thing and that I need to keep working harder and smarter.

5. And the question we ask everyone: What’s your most spectacular failure?

Some of the big failures come from fear – like times when I didn’t have the courage to look someone in the eye and ask them to make a big funding commitment for fear they would say no. Really, though, I’m not sure how I feel about putting “spectacular” and “failure” together. The big, real big failures often aren’t the go-down-in-a-blaze-of-glory variety, they are when you wrong someone, disrespect someone, make someone feel small rather than raise them up – and just as often these are sins of omission rather than commission. Those are the ones that sting.

I promise if you blog daily you are going to fail often.  You have to decide in advance that you’re ready to fail – if anything it’s the commitment to being open to failure that frees you to ship, to push your ideas to the edge, to dream big. And that all sounds great but that doesn’t mean you won’t write posts that don’t hit the mark, because you will.

This idea that failure is rare is what really holds us back. We are perfect so rarely, and if we stick to our guns the rest of the time, we will learn so much less and share so much less than we have to offer.

Your (brand) essence is not an inert element

For many years, as is typical in more junior roles in most big companies, I spent most of my time inside the organization.  Working hard, doing client or customer work, but really on the inside.  From there I had a view of what my company was and what it represented in the world, but that view was mostly informed by whatever the company wanted to tell its employees.

But then I got into the real world: I interacted with customers, funders, competitors; I gave talks on my company’s behalf and saw the reaction people had (good and bad) during and after my remarks; I was required, day in and day out, to understand and distill who we were and what we represented in the world; and then I heard back, just as frequently, whether and how what I was saying resonated with people.  If I listened hard, new truths emerged.

In the words, reactions, challenges, and excitement you hear back, you learn a lot.  You discover surprising things that you knew and that were dormant.  You connect dots in unexpected ways.  You see yourself through other people’s eyes, and have the chance to bring that energy back into the organization.

By spending time right at the edge of your organization, you react to the outside world, and in that process of reaction, your brand and its positioning change, evolve, and sharpen.  Your brand has an active reaction every time it has one of these interactions.

I used to think that CEO’s like Jeff Immelt spent a lot of time with customers just to hear the truth about what GE did and didn’t deliver on in the customers’ eyes.  I’ve begun to understand that it’s only through spending time looking outside that Jeff, or any of us, can figure out who we really are, what our company or organization represents, and what it can become.

 

Innovation isn’t really like apple pie

No one dislikes “innovation” as a concept.  It’s like mom and apple pie (in the US at least) – no one will ever, ever stand up and say, “I’d like us to innovate less!!”

No, that would be too obvious.  Instead they say, “Of course we want innovation but let’s….

…make sure we don’t go over anyone’s head.

…ensure we don’t surprise people, or offend anyone.

…get buy in from all potential stakeholders.

…form a working group to think it through a little more.

…dot every i and cross every t.

…not go too fast.

Sorry but it doesn’t work this way.

Not all innovation is about lone wolves in back rooms – in fact the most innovative cultures are highly collaborative.  At the same time, you have to decide what you value, and be willing to make tradeoffs to protect it; add one thing too many to the mix (that extra approval, that check and balance, that unwillingness to step on a few toes) and you extinguish the flame.

Everyone loves the idea of innovation, but most people are unwilling to take their culture to a place where innovation thrives.

That’s why it’s so rare.

Radical openness and what it means for conferences

I had a surreal moment yesterday, while sitting in the audience at The New York Forum with my laptop open.  I had WiFi connectivity, so, out of curiosity, I logged into the live stream of the panel I was attending.  Indeed, there it was, exactly as I was experiencing it in real time, with just a 5 second delay.

The knowledge that I could have been experiencing that panel from my desk or from halfway around the world shouldn’t necessarily have made me wonder what I was doing (what we all, conference attendees, were doing) sitting in that room.  But it did.  We all came a long way to experience something that we could have experienced – at almost the same quality at almost the same time – without ever leaving the comfort of our homes or offices.

On some fundamental level, we know that it doesn’t make sense to get hundreds of incredible people together and then have them spend 80% of their time sitting in silence listening to panelists. We used to convince ourselves that it was worth it because of the illusion of scarcity and exclusivity: sure I can hear Maria Bartiromo any day on CNBC, but there she is, just 50 feet away from me, probably saying things she wouldn’t say on the air! 

The livestream shatters that illusion.  Anyone can (and should!) watch, so there’s no more scarcity.  And like it or not, scarcity equates with value.

So what do we do now?

Here’s a thought experiment, just to mess with you: wouldn’t it make a lot of sense to pre-record some or all of the “talks” at a conference, make them available (earlier?) to conference attendees and to the whole world, and do away with panels so you can use the conference to let attendees talk to one another.  Or better yet, if you want attendees to be able to hear the “panel,” have a Star Trek-like hologram of the “panel” playing in the front of the room for those who want the 3D experience.

Absent this semi-crazy notion, there really are only three options that really make sense for conferences:

Hold an un-Conference: the Tallberg Forum and the Opportunity Collaboration both have essentially no formal talks – they are gatherings focused exclusively on facilitating connection between the participants.  Note that both of these are held in remote locations, which I’m sure facilitates dialogue long into the night and makes it less likely that people will jump ship early (since normally the closing Keynote by some dignitary keeps people around until the end).

Copy TED: If you are going to have speakers, do what TED does – create a conference structure (who’s in the audience, brand, potential for your talk to be viewed zillions of time if it’s great) that makes it extraordinarily likely that most of the speakers will give the best talks of their lives.  And then build in big chunks of time for interaction amongst the participants – between panels, late at night, etc.  If you don’t want to do a TEDx (for whatever reason), there’s still no harm in borrowing shamelessly from the playbook – it works.

The fireside chat: I don’t know if anyone does this, but here’s a third idea which plays off the strength of going deep with individual “speakers:” an interview-style conversation that’s not a formal TED-like talk, one that feels intimate and is built around audience participation and really exploring the depth of knowledge of the featured guest.   You’d have to have great interlocutors who get the best out of the “speakers,” and would have to add special touches (room design, lighting, etc.) to make it feel really intimate. Or, you go completely in the other direction, SXSW style, and have great people do crazy things they’d never otherwise do (like battledecks, where people present a series of slides they’ve never seen before), so you really get a sense of personality and who they are.

You’ll notice there’s no fourth option, with an up-the-middle-of-the-fairway model in which you get 6 high profile people plus a moderator and try to direct them to have a substantive, meaningful conversation in an hour.  It’s structurally designed to fall short – panels are built to jump all over the place, to stay at a high level, to have panelists take up time explaining who they are, and never to have the chance to dig deep into a topic or a person’s expertise.  Yet despite these inherent shortcomings, it’s the natural thing to do  because that list of speakers is what fills your conference hall, the more you have of them the bigger draw you’ll be, and once you have them signed up, you may as well put them all on the stage together.

What’s interesting is that the radical openness that’s become the new standard for big conferences has done much more than democratize access to everyone who doesn’t attend the conference – it has also radically raised the bar on what is worth sitting down and listening to for 75 minutes (because there’s so much other incredible content out there, much of it generated by the very same people who are on stage at your conference).

The reason people pay between $500 and $1,500 for tickets to hear U2 isn’t because they don’t have access to U2’s music at 99 cents per song.  It’s because of the shared experience, the intimacy, the raw power of being there in the moment – it is an emotional experience that you’re not going to get in your living room, no matter how good your sound system is. (HT to Quentin Hardy for making this great point to me).

Emotional connection, human interaction, serendipitous connections with people you otherwise wouldn’t have met, and yes, doing real business that you couldn’t have done in any other way – these are things I can’t get live streamed at my desk, these are things worth flying across the country for, these are things that will always be scarce.

For everything else, I’ve got a great web browser and a broadband internet connection.